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Immigration Detention: The Golden Goose for Private Prisons

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By Sarnata Reynolds, Advocacy and Policy Director for Refugee and Migrants' Rights.

An immigrant stands in a holding cell at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facility in Florence, Arizona. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
An immigrant stands in a holding cell at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facility in Florence, Arizona. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

For many months now, states all over the U.S. and the federal government have taken steps to "get tough" on undocumented immigrants of color without taking into account the fact that workers are crossing the border because U.S. employers are desperate for their labor and no visas exist to permit their entry.

Instead of spending their time tackling this reality, which if actually addressed might create a basis for the nondiscriminatory enforcement of immigration laws, legislators are instead continuing to introduce bills, such as Rep. Lamar Smith's H.R. 1932.

These bills throw more money at detention centers and enforcement operations and ups the ante by making their imprisonment mandatory and indefinite, regardless of Supreme Court precedent finding that it's unconstitutional.

Not to be outdone by Arizona's S.B. 1070, in Alabama the State Congress passed H.R.56, which not only punishes immigrant communities, it also criminalizes third parties who rent houses to undocumented immigrants, which, while reading neutrally, is likely directed at immigrant communities of color.

While some politicians believe this type of legislation will prove to constituents how seriously they take immigration issues, discriminatory laws, whether intentional or disproportionate in impact, violate the human rights of immigrants and communities of color, and pose an enormous financial burden on state and federal governments.

Immigrants, third parties, and government budgets suffer under the burden of these draconian bills, but one group does continue to reap enormous benefits: the private prison corporations who receive incredibly lucrative contracts to detain the very same immigrants that all these bills target, and if Lamar Smith has his way, mandatorily and indefinitely.

The Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) receives 40 percent of its business from the federal government, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP). In recent years, the CCA and BOP have enjoyed a disturbingly close relationship as high-ranking BOP directors, who have overseen the transfer of millions of dollars in contracts to the CCA, have left BOP only to accept lofty positions at the CCA.

Most recently, Harlan Lappin, who personally oversaw tens of millions of dollars in contracts to the CCA, retired as BOP's director and three weeks after his retirement was finalized in May 2011, CCA announced that Lappin would become the new executive vice president and chief corrections officer for the company.

Really? Doesn't that unnerve anyone in government?

In 1993, Michael Quinlan, another former BOP director, left the agency amid a sexual harassment controversy and subsequently took a senior position with the CCA in the Strategic Planning Division. He is currently a senior vice president.

Although President Obama has issued an executive order restricting presidential appointees from engaging in work that directly affects immediate former clients and employers for two years after leaving their appointments, apparently it's too often an overlooked reward on the way out.

The close relationship between the CCA and BOP is even more alarming considering the CCA's well-documented history of gross human rights violations in its prisons, including mistreatment, failing to stop preventable injuries and health emergencies, and allowing preventable deaths in its immigration and other detention facilities.

In December 2010, the FBI initiated an investigation of the CCA after a video was released by the Associated Press showing an inmate being beaten unconscious while security guards watched without intervening. In 2010, the New York Times reported that nine deaths had occurred at the CCA's prison facility in Eloy, Arizona, more than any other immigration contract prison facility in the country.

But why would it bother CCA? Government retirees are still more than happy to reap the financial benefits of the private contractors' callous care.

The lucrative relationship between the detention of immigrants, their government wardens, and private prison contractors is alarming and unacceptable. While immigrants live in fear of oppressive immigration enforcement actions, private prison contractors enjoy a thriving business. When legislators pass more repressive bills that wreck havoc on families, promote poverty by jailing breadwinners, and push communities to mistrust their police, the private prison contractors are likely the first to celebrate.

Influential government positions may not be as lucrative as those in the private industry, but they do convey exceptional esteem and should be prohibited from use as a slingshot to riches. Likewise, imprisoning immigrants should not be a golden goose for private corporations, but apparently in this area, what's good for the goose, is good for the gander.